After the whole Laramie cast saw part one of Angels in America this past week, we got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with the cast of the show and ask them a little bit about the process that they went through to produce it. I asked a question that went a little something like this:
“Obviously, both Laramie and Angels in America are plays that are grounded in real-world crises, one in hate-crimes and the other in AIDS. They’re intensely emotional in a very concrete, very un-abstract sort of way. And this is definitely the first time that I have ever done theatre like this. So my question is, as actors, how much do you let it get to you? How much do you let it get to you not as a character, but as a person?”
To be quite frank, what I really should have asked them, were I being perfectly honest, would have been something more like this:
“This show is getting to me way too much. I’m too invested in this. Help me?”
I came to the realization that this was the case when I was doing my dramaturgical research (for those who don’t know, that means research pertaining to the play, characters, etc.) for the individual meetings that we had with Jeff, our director.
Probably the most important role that I play in the show is the role of Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. In the show, his only monologue is his in-court statement acquitting Aaron McKinney from the death penalty, but it is a powerful monologue that really knocks the wind out of you as an actor.
So I was in Perkins library (for the non-Dukies reading this, that’s our main library on campus) researching Dennis Shepard—who it turns out was an oil executive who worked in Saudi Arabia, not a country man who lived in Laramie—and I came across a video of the speech that he made along with his wife Judy at the 2009 HRC National Dinner (whose other notable guests were Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.) At any rate, he and Judy were honored with the first inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Leadership Award for their work in forwarding legislation that prevents hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and they made a speech. The video starts with Judy and Dennis walking on stage and receiving the plaque in front of a standing ovation, tears sparkling in not only their eyes, but the eyes of seemingly every member of the audience. Judy says a few words, and then Dennis takes the microphone, seemingly unable to speak through his emotion:
“Nine years ago I spoke at the dinner, and I said, Matthew is not our gay son, he is our son. Judy has been a martyr doing this, she has basically done this by herself, but with President Obama’s support, the bill will be signed, and then my statement will only be, ‘Matthew was our son.’ Thank you.”
You should really watch the video for yourself, because a transcription doesn’t fully embrace the weight of Dennis’ words.
So I’m watching this video in Perkins, and I realize pretty quickly that I must look rather odd, seeing as it’s not everyday that you see someone sobbing in the library, especially not for an hour. For whatever reason, I couldn’t let that speech go, I can’t let Dennis go. I can’t. And to be honest, I’m terrified of playing the part of Dennis Shepard, because I don’t know how I can possibly do it justice. I just can’t help but see my own father in him, wishing that all fathers could be more like Dennis, wondering whether Matthew got to feel his father’s affirmation and love while he was alive, wondering how many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people never hear that sort of affirmation from their fathers, even in death. I can’t help but get goose bumps every time I think about it.
Laramie—this town, these people, this story, this play—it’s getting to me.